Planting, Caring for and Harvesting Blueberry Bushes

Ahh. The taste of yummy blueberry muffins made with fresh blueberries picked from your backyard’s blueberry bushes can be a reality without too much fuss.

“Blueberries are consumers’ top preferred berry for their delicious taste and health benefits and growing them can be quite easy in the right conditions,” says Victoria De Bruin, marketing manager for the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council.   The council’s 2017 Consumer Usage & Attitude Study reveals that per capita consumption of these blue wonders in this country increased 600 percent from 1994 to 2014.

This juicy, sweet fruit grew first in the U.S. in New Jersey at the beginning of the 1900s, and before that, they could only be cultivated in the wild. Since then, many varieties of blueberry plants blossom throughout the country, Canada, South America and other areas of the world, according to the blueberry council.

Blueberries Grow in Many Climates

Some blueberry bushes flourish better in warmer climates such as the West Coast, the Southeast and the Southern Hemisphere, but others progress better in colder environments such as Michigan and Canada. Ten states account for more than 98 percent of blueberry fruit production commercially grown in the U.S., and they show a dramatic variety of climates across many hardiness zones.

The 10 states that produce nearly all the commercially grown blueberry fruit are:

  • California.
  • Florida.
  • Georgia.
  • Indiana.
  • Michigan.
  • Mississippi.
  • New Jersey.
  • North Carolina.
  • Oregon.
  • Washington. 

The peak season for fresh blueberries continues from Mid-June to Mid-August.

Not only does the blueberry bush produce tasty treats, but it can also offer beauty to your overall landscape design with reddish leaves in the fall and white, bell-shaped flowers in the spring, says The Old Farmer’s Almanac.  

Planting Blueberries: When and Where

The almanac recommends planting blueberry bushes in early spring, the earlier the better. But you can also plant in them in late fall. Choose 1- to 3-year-old plants. They can be purchased in containers or as a bare-root. But always buy from a reputable local garden center or well-known gardening website.   

Blueberry bushes thrive in sunny locations for optimal fruit production. But you also need to avoid areas with drying winds. Select an area that is weed-free, De Bruin says, and keep the roots moist throughout the growing season.

“You can plant blueberry plants as close as 2 feet apart for hedgerows or 6 feet apart so they grow individually,” she adds.

Advice, Tips

You can get better production, and know what to expect, with these blueberry growing tips.

  • Blueberry bushes thrive on full sun and acidic soil.
  • Planting two or more blueberry varieties promotes better pollination.
  • Don’t expect fruit your first year and not too much fruit for two to three years.
  • By five years, you can pick much bigger harvests during the growing season.
  • Blueberry plants don’t reach full maturity for nearly a decade.

The blueberry council also emphasizes planting blueberry bushes in a spot where water can be obtained easily so the roots remain moist throughout the growing season. You can also use raised beds or patio containers for blueberry plants, especially in areas where your soil isn’t tiptop or you don’t have room.

Blueberries’ Special Need: Acid (Low pH) Soil

Low soil pH remains the No. 1 priority for healthy blueberry bushes. A soil test should tell you what the acid soil amount of your ground. The pH should be between 4.0 to 5.0, and it should be loose, well-drained and lots of organic matter, says the University of Minnesota Extension

If your soil pH starts out too high, growth can be slowed down, leaves discolor and the plant could die.

Most USDA cooperative extension offices offer soil testing. If you find out your pH is a little bit high, you can add sphagnum peat. For greater than 7.0 pH, you probably should use a raised bed filled with acidic planting mix.  

Sandy soils won’t require a raised bed. You can make a hole in the ground 15 inches deep that measures 2 feet wide by 4 feet long. Add acidic soil mixture.

You can plant the blueberry bushes close to develop a full line of shrubbery in your acidic soil or give them 6 feet of space between to grow individually, the blueberry council suggests. If you have your heart set on a lot of blueberry bushes and plants in rows, make sure to give 8 to 10 feet between the rows.

Find the Right Variety for Your Area

While there are many varieties, blueberry bushes for your home garden fall into four major classes, according to the Ohio State University Extension

  • Highbush.
  • Half-high or highlow.
  • Rabbiteye.
  • Southern highbush.

The most common remains highbush.

The extension recommended only highbush blueberries for Ohio and some Midwestern states.  Southern states should grow the rabbiteye or southern highbush.  The highbush varieties handle extreme cold conditions, up minus 45 degrees. However, they may not produce as much as a highbush type.

Talk with your cooperative extension or local garden center about what kind of blueberry plants could be best for your area and your soil. New fruit types are being released all the time. Their catchy names include Bluegold, Bluejay, Patriot, Elliott, Herbert and many more.

Fertilizing, Pruning Blueberry Bushes

De Bruin recommends giving your acid-loving plants time to grow a little before you let them bear fruit. It might seem unproductive, but you should remove any blossoms the first year to promote hardier new growth. Every year after that, prune your blueberry plants in the fall to rid of straggling limbs.

Once the plants establish themselves, you can use acid fertilizers such as rhododendron or azalea formulas. Don’t over-fertilize because of the plants’ sensitivity. Timing remains your friend. Fertilizing once in early spring and again a few months later can be the soil amendments promote new growth and strong fruit production. Don’t forget to water after fertilizing.
Applying 2-4 inches of mulch such as sawdust, grass clippings or bark at the base of the plant. Mulching can save moisture and add organic matter to the soil for the blueberry plant’s root system. 

The Old Farmer’s Almanac suggests that for the first four years or so after planting blueberry plants, there is no need to prune. After that, a good prune session will help stimulate growth from the new shoots that will stimulate fruiting the next year. Prune blueberries in late winter or early spring before any of those new blossoms begin. Just cut the dead, broker, weak or sparse shoots.

Health Benefits of These Acid-Loving Plants

“Consumers not only see blueberries as a tasty snack or recipe staple available all year round but as a berry with numerous health benefits,” adds De Bruin. “In fact, 99% of consumers know they’re healthy, and 68% can point to specific health benefits such as being a good source of vitamins and minerals, good for the immune system and reducing the risk of heart disease.”
Consumers understand that eating blueberries is one of the easiest small changes one can make in pursuit of a healthier lifestyle, she adds. While blueberries are familiar in breakfast and baked goods, their versatility beyond traditional applications is also being recognized by consumers.
“Blueberries of all forms can be used in savory dishes, sauces and spreads, desserts, cocktails and beverages, and more,” she says. 

So, maybe this coming spring, you can plant a blueberry bush in a raised bed or patio container. Be patient the first year or so, and by the third year, you’ll be enjoying plump, sweet blueberries by the handful.

Lee Nelson

Lee Nelson

Lee Nelson, an experienced freelance writer and former award-winning newspaper reporter, writes for National Association of Realtors and many state Realtor magazines. She lives in Illinois with her high school sweetheart and loves cooking, swimming, traveling and spending time with her grandchildren.